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The Daily Sentinel (Colorado): River district urges planning for drier future

EXTRACT: There’s also the effect of energy development on the Colorado River Basin to consider, an issue some roundtable members found frustrating Monday because Royal Dutch Shell and other companies researching oil shale here have not divulged how much water in situ oil shale extraction will consume.

By BOBBY MAGILL
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

GLENWOOD SPRINGS —  A call on the Colorado River could be decades away, but with less water forecast to flow in the river in the coming years, cities and towns on the Western Slope should plan for water shortages anyway —  especially if they have junior water rights.

That was the message Colorado River Water Conservation District General Manager Eric Kuhn gave the Colorado River Roundtable on Monday as the river district prepares to kick off a study of how much water regional energy development will need, and the Legislature considers a potential water availability study on the Western Slope.

Kuhn said water shortages caused by regional climate change could affect every water user in the Colorado River Basin, and they should plan for a future with less water to go around.

And, he said, nobody knows for sure how much water is left to be developed in the Colorado River because of declining stream flows. That affects big water projects such as the proposed Blue Mesa Reservoir Pumpback, he said.

All Western Slope river basins, he said, must come together to plan for their water future because they’re all connected to the Colorado River.

Conditions on the river, he said, may soon be critical.

Flows into Lake Powell are projected at 59 percent of normal this year, and the Bureau of Reclamation could very likely begin operating its reservoirs under critical drought conditions by the end of the year, he said.

A Colorado River Compact call was once considered a distant possibility and still may be decades away, he said.

But, “Now, it might be — this year is not looking that great,” he said. “Seven out of eight years we will have below average in-flows (into Lake Powell).”

Lake Powell is the Upper Basin states’ savings account, which allows the states to meet their annual 7.5 million acre-foot water delivery obligation to California, Arizona and Nevada.

If the Upper Basin’s ability to deliver enough water to those states is jeopardized, a call on the river may be issued, and water use in Colorado will have to be cut back.

There’s also the effect of energy development on the Colorado River Basin to consider, an issue some roundtable members found frustrating Monday because Royal Dutch Shell and other companies researching oil shale here have not divulged how much water in situ oil shale extraction will consume.

“There’s a misconception that it’s (oil shale development) all going to be new water, it’s really not,” Kuhn said. “Oil companies have existing valid water rights.”

Some of those companies have water rights dating from the 1950s or 1960s, Kuhn said.

During a water shortage, water consumptive oil shale extraction could deny Gunnison Basin or San Juan Basin or other water users their water rights if they date from 1970s or 1980s, he said.

But some of that energy development could end up helping farmers who need water desperately.

Roundtable member David Merritt, river district chief engineer, said a bill sponsored by Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., will address what energy companies do with produced water pumped from oil and gas wells.

If passed, the More Water and More Energy Act of 2007 would provide $1 million grants to some Upper Colorado River Basin states, possibly including Colorado, for projects that would recover produced water for irrigation, municipal and industrial uses.

The bill, which the House passed last week, has been referred to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

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